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Political right, or an election problem?

Independent expenditures on issues, candidates not subject to usual rules.

April 15, 2011|By Melanie Hicken, melanie.hicken@latimes.com

The recent municipal campaigns in Burbank and Glendale helped illustrate the complexity and general opaqueness of independent expenditures — a campaign funding mechanism that has no finance limit and can be difficult to track.

Dubbed “the giant gorilla in campaign finance” by a 2008 California Fair Political Practices Commission report, independent expenditures — when outside groups fund political ads or mailers in support or opposition to a candidate or ballot measure — have become increasingly prominent on all election levels in recent years.

In the Burbank City Council and Glendale Unified school board races, independent expenditures outpaced all other spending. And in the close race for Glendale City Council, incumbents Dave Weaver and John Drayman benefited from more than $10,000 in outside spending, little of which was on file with the city clerk before the April 5 election.

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While proponents of the spending say it is an important expression of First Amendment rights, critics often point to the mechanism as a way of getting around limits on campaign contributions to candidates, like those in place in Glendale and Burbank.

Open government advocates say it is important for voters to know the interests backing candidates before hitting the polls.

“It gives the public vital information as to who supports certain candidates, who is attempting to defeat certain candidates,” said Jessica Levinson, director of political reform for the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles-based nonpartisan think tank.

But while candidate fundraising is generally simple to track — with several fundraising reports required to be filed with the city clerk in the months leading up to the election — confusion surrounding the complex state rules guiding the reporting of independent expenditures at the municipal level means that spending by some groups can go relatively unnoticed.

Glendale resident Alek Bartrosouf said he spent a considerable amount of time tracking the campaigns and candidate fundraising before casting his vote last week, but was unaware of the independent expenditures.

“I feel like there is some responsibility to get this information out to the public,” he said. “As someone who is an informed voter, I would be really interested in seeing those documents prior to making my vote.”

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